Use feature style in your blog writing to engage readers

How is blog writing like feature writing? What are some lessons from feature writers that bloggers can use?

I’ve been blogging for a few months now, and I’ve noticed many similarities between blog writing and journalistic feature writing.

When I was in journalism, feature writing was my favorite type of writing to do. It was also my favorite class to teach when I taught college journalism. As I’ve been blogging over these past few months, I’m delighted to find that many of the same techniques I used and taught in feature writing apply to blog writing.

Writing great content as a blogger is all about engaging your readers. It’s about getting them interested so they’ll read your posts.

Feature-blog-writing

Using some of the techniques of feature writing in your blog writing can really help you hook your audience.

It’s the same with feature writing. Feature stories often use a person or a few people to humanize and illustrate a larger issue, or to tell the story of a person, place or business. They appear all the time in local and national news outlets. We are drawn to these stories because we relate to the people in them.

As bloggers, we want readers to relate to our posts. Once you see the similarities between blog writing and feature writing, you can use some of the same techniques feature writers use to enliven your posts. A feature writing style can really help you hook your audience.

In feature writing, some of the rules are looser than in other types of writing, such as news writing or academic writing. You can use slang, contractions and dramatic phrases. It’s the same in blog writing. I’ve read posts where the author doesn’t use contractions, and it sounds stiff and formal. Formality works in an academic paper, but it’s a little off-putting in a blog post.

In both feature writing and blog writing, sometimes you can get away with using sentence fragments. Use caution here, though: You must use them effectively to show you know what you’re doing.

This is not an effective sentence fragment:

If you are starting a new blog or want to take your existing blog and make it a business. Then there are many blog resources out there, free and paid, that will help you see success much faster.

The first part is a phrase. It needs the second part to form the complete thought. This writer doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing. He just looks like he doesn’t know how to form sentences.

However, a short question that leads into the next sentence, or a common phrase like, “Moving on!” can be effective ways to use fragments.

In both feature writing and blog writing, you can start sentences with and or but. In more formal types of writing, writing teachers will tell you to avoid this. But it’s okay in blog writing. I do it all the time. And it works.

Feature writing uses an approachable voice. Feature writers often use second person to talk directly to the reader. So do the best bloggers. Bloggers who use second person – you – to talk directly to the individual reader will be able to draw them in.

Feature writing uses vivid description of actual scenes and everyday details. This works for blogging, too, and it could be especially helpful for travel blogs or vacation posts. Vivid descriptions help readers see in their mind’s eye the place you’re describing on your blog. Everyday details help your reader relate to your blog post. If they can identify with what you’re writing, they’ll stay more engaged.

Feature writing uses dramatic techniques, such as presenting facts in dramatic ways and creating realistic scenes. Bloggers can do this, too. You can present facts using regular text and create scenes through storytelling. You can also use lists, infographics, or photos.

If you’re intrigued by these similarities and want to apply some feature writing techniques to your blog writing, here are some tips on how to do it:

  1. Write tightly. Cut out extra words and redundancies. Use the best anecdotes.
  2. Vary your sentence structure. Mix up long and short sentences. If you make all of your sentences the same length, readers will get bored and your writing will sound monotonous.
  3. Match the treatment of the story to the topic. Use a serious tone for serious stories and a lighter tone for fun or humorous stories.
  4. Don’t overdo the colorfulness so much that your prose becomes the center of attention. Don’t let the writing itself outdo the story you’re trying to tell.
  5. Find your own voice. Explore your own writing style and creativity.

There are so many blogs and other content to read online that anything you can do to make your content stand out will only help you grow your blog audience. Using these techniques from feature writing is a great way to make your posts livelier and easier for readers to relate to.

Readers, have you noticed any of these techniques being used in blogs? Do you use any of them yourself, or think you might after reading this post? Let us know in the comments!

A lesson in it’s and its use to help you look more professional

I debuted my first writing lesson post a couple of weeks ago on apostrophe use. As I explained in that post, my goal is to examine errors found on actual blog posts and websites, without naming the URL of the blog or site it came from.

My goal is to not to point fingers at the author, but to point out the error. And I’ll explain what the error is and what you can do to fix it if it shows up in your own writing. If you apply these lessons to your writing, you’ll elevate your blog to a more professional level, and your readers will see you as more credible.

Let’s move on to today’s error!

Today’s error: Getting it’s and its mixed up

It's-and-its-use

It’s and its are not interchangeable. Don’t automatically add an apostrophe without thinking about whether you’re using the contraction or possessive form.

If I had a dollar for every time I saw it’s and its misused, I wouldn’t need to run this blog anymore because I could retire rich. Even though this error is a misuse of the apostrophe, which relates to my last lesson, it is so pervasive that it deserves a lesson of its own. (Note that I used its properly in that sentence!)

It’s is a contraction, and its is possessive. It’s that simple (there I go again!), and yet, so many writers get it wrong.

Since this error is so pervasive, we’re going to look at three examples.

Example 1: Facebook is rolling out a brand new look for it’s Facebook pages.

This example came from a graphics company website, which is trying to sell marketing and graphics web services. It was written by an author who calls herself a marketing professional.

The error: This sentence uses the contraction instead of the possessive.

The fix: Here’s a trick to remember: Mentally read “it is” into a sentence to see if it makes sense. If it does, use it’s. If it doesn’t, use its.

Applying that trick to the example: Facebook is rolling out a brand new look for it is Facebook pages.

No, that doesn’t work. It needs to be fixed.

The correct sentence: Facebook is rolling out a brand new look for its Facebook pages.

Example 2: This, on it’s face is a fine thing to do. … The concept of a sabbatical is common in academia and not so common elsewhere. So on it’s face, asking isn’t so bad.

This example came from a major news network website by a guest columnist. With two it’s/its errors in the same column, I wondered if anyone had edited it before they put it online.

The error: The author repeats the phrase “on it’s face” twice (Redundancy is a separate error, so I won’t address it here.), and both times, uses the contraction when it should be possessive.

The fix: Let’s apply our “it is” trick to these sentences: This, on it is face is a fine thing to do … So on it is face, asking isn’t so bad.

Make sense? No. Once again, these sentences fail the “it is” test and need to be corrected to use its.

The correct sentences: This, on its face is a fine thing to do … The concept of a sabbatical is common in academia and not so common elsewhere. So on its face, asking isn’t so bad.

Example 3: Its one thing to be a creative genius; its another to be a successful business person.

This example came from an entrepreneur advice site.

The error: This example has the its/it’s error the other way, which is less common. I usually see it’s used instead of its. But here, the possessive form is used instead of the contraction.

The fix: Let’s apply the it’s/its test: It is one thing to be a creative genius; it is another to be a successful business person.

That one makes sense! So the author should use it’s.

The correct sentence: It’s one thing to be a creative genius; it’s another to be a successful business person. (The sentence would also be correct using it is in both places.)

The lesson: It’s is a contraction for it is. Its is the possessive form. Treat it the same as his, hers, yours and theirs. The two forms are not interchangeable. They each have specific uses.

With this trick, it’s easy to keep from making it’s/its errors. Think about whether you need that apostrophe instead of just carelessly adding it. This can make a difference in your writing being more professional.

Readers, do you know the difference between it’s and its? Do you cringe when you see one used wrong? Or do you even notice? Will you notice this error more now that you’ve read this lesson? Let us know!

Five characteristics of writing good copy for your audience

As a blogger, you may struggle with writing for a broad audience. How do you make your content engaging, and how do you connect? What are some characteristics that can help?

As I’ve mentioned on my blog several times before, I come from a journalism background. As I’ve gotten into blogging, I’ve found many parallels between journalism and blogging. Both types of writing cater to a broad audience.

Even if you’re writing for a niche, you probably still have thousands of readers in that niche. That’s a lot of readers who are seeing your writing.

If you’ve never written for an audience before, you may find it scary at first. After all, your writing has to be informative, engaging and different. It has to connect with your readers and teach them something they didn’t know before. That’s a lot of pressure!

Journalists have learned to face down this pressure, so in this post I’ll discuss a few lessons from journalism that you can use to help you write for your blog audience.

First, what is writing for an audience? Here’s a definition:

Good writing for a mass audience is clear, concise, simple and to the point. It conveys information, ideas and feelings to the reader and creates a world readers can step into.

Journalists do media writing, and media writing has five characteristics that bloggers can use.

Accuracy: This first characteristic is a necessity of a writer for a broad audience. The short Five-characteristics-of-writingdefinition of accuracy is “getting it right.”

You want to make sure your facts, spelling, grammar, punctuation and style are right. You also want to make sure your readers are informed correctly. Accuracy is also important so you gain and keep a reputation as a professional blogger.

Many of the procedures that mass media writers follow are set up to ensure accuracy, such as conducting research, verifying sources, and checking facts. All writers are expected to take the effort to present information accurately. Bloggers are no exception.

This is also why editing is important. Editing gives you the chance to check for errors and ensure your facts are correct. Your process should include paying attention to details in your posts.

Clarity: The second characteristic of clarity means using common words and phrases so that your information can be easily understood by the many readers in your audience.

Clarity means keeping your language simple. Use straightforward terms and sentence structures. Avoid jargon, or if you must use a jargonistic term, explain it to the reader.

It also means being specific with details. Don’t assume the reader knows what you know without explaining. Make sure your time sequence is clear and the reader can tell when events happened.

Transitions should also be clear, pulling the reader through the story. Connect new information to information already introduced.

Your writing should answer all of the questions that could be expected by the audience. No, this doesn’t mean you have to answer all of the questions that could possibly be asked, but it does mean answering all those that it takes to understand the information.

Precision: The third characteristic, precision, means that as a writer, you take special care with the language. You know good grammar and practice it. You use words for precisely what they mean. You develop a love for the language.

If you’re not a natural writer, or it’s been a while since you’ve learned the finer points of grammar and punctuation, precision means you learn your weaknesses and look up what you don’t know. If necessary, it means getting an editor or a coach to help you.

Efficiency: The fourth characteristic means using the fewest words to present your information accurately and clearly. It also means being organized and managing your time well. It takes a lot to run a blog. It takes not just the writing, but also managing comments, networking with other bloggers, and managing social media.

When it comes to writing, most of us write inefficiently, especially on first draft. I’ve been writing for years, and I hardly ever have a first draft just magically come together! Writing is a messy and inefficient process.

Many writers don’t do a good job editing their writing. The world is filled with inefficient, clichéd, or wordy writing, and we often fall victim to it. Sometimes, we copy this writing into our own and begin to think it’s correct. As professional bloggers, we need to rise above this inefficiency.

Brevity: The fifth characteristic is brevity, which means getting to the point. Tell what your story or post is about and give the main idea to your reader as quickly and simply as possible.

Brevity also means cutting out repetition. This means not using too many words that really mean the same thing, or repeating words more than necessary for the reader’s understanding. This also means cutting out unnecessary words that don’t add any meaning to your writing.

These characteristics are the ones professional journalists follow, and they can help you as a blogger write for your audience. You can use them to convey your information, ideas and feelings to your readers in a professional way that sets you apart.

Readers, what helps you write for a broad audience? What characteristics of good writing do you notice? Let us know in the comments!

Keeping you informed: Great links you should read

Like most bloggers and online communicators, I read a lot of articles and posts. I share the best on my Twitter, Facebook and Google+ pages. My followers on those platforms get to see the links to great articles that I find around the web. But if you only follow me here on my blog, you won’t see what else I share.

And, those platforms – Twitter especially – don’t give me very much room to say why I like the articles enough to share them with my readers.

So, I’m introducing a new type of post today. Every couple of weeks, I’ll round up the best links I’ve found and share them here.

To help you stay informed and give you some interesting reads, here’s a roundup of the five best posts I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, along with links to the articles and a short description of what they’re about and why I liked them.

1. Set Aside 5% of Your Time For Your “Slow-Cooked” Ideas

This piece describes the difference between projects that need to be done quickly on a deadline, and those that can be done slowly in the background. The author advocates giving five percent of your time to cultivate these slow projects and eventually turn them into masterpieces.

I enjoyed this piece because it reminds me that not everything needs to – or should – be done quickly. In our sped-up society, it’s easy to think everything has to be done right now. But some projects will benefit from slow, methodical thinking.

2. The Only 7 Things We Truly Can Control in Life—and How to Rock Them All

Do we control everything in our lives? No, we don’t. Do we obsess about the things we can’t control? Many of us probably do. This article encourages us to make net positive decisions that give us confidence and empowerment. It lays out seven steps to taking control of our lives.

This article spoke to me because I’m always trying to identify what I can and can’t control. The only thing I can control is my actions and reactions. I can’t control other people, even though I would like to sometimes. These simple tips brought me back to what’s important.

3. Here’s The Schedule Very Successful People Follow Every Day

This article talks about the natural rhythm of the body and mind throughout the day. To be successful, you need to structure the type of work you do throughout the day to follow this rhythm. It says knowing the best time to get the right tasks done is key to success.

As a blogger and aspiring freelancer, I’m still getting used to the “work at home” lifestyle. This article gave me some great insights into why my focus comes and goes. It also gave me some ideas on how I can match my desired schedule (I’m not a morning person) to my body’s rhythms.

4. When Copy and Paste Reigned in the Age of Scrapbooking

Where did blogging come from? According to this article, it has its roots in scrapbooking in the 19th century. It gives some historical perspective to the information overload and the curating of that information that we do today. It tells us that what we’re experiencing today with all of this information is not new; it’s just in a different form.

I like articles and stories that ground what I’m doing today in history. I also like articles that trace the history of media, because of my journalism background. This one is particularly interesting because it gives today’s bloggers and content curators some roots.

5. The Moment I Realized Personal Growth Wasn’t About Me (Or You)

We’re always trying to learn and grow, aren’t we? But what’s that growth all about? This powerful story gives personal growth a bigger perspective than just ourselves. The author says it’s not about us; it’s about the people we affect.

This piece really made me think about how the baggage we carry around affects our family and friends. If we don’t deal with our own bad habits, behaviors and feelings, we could be affecting future generations. What I do affects other people more than I ever thought.

I hope you enjoy these articles as much as I did!

Readers, what articles did you enjoy over the past couple of weeks? Which one on my list was your favorite? Share a link or a comment!

Great content starts with great writing and editing

What is great content? How do we know it when we see it?

As blog writers, we’re told by the experts that if we write great content, the audience will come. When we promote ourselves on social media, and when readers click through to our posts, our great content will hold their attention. Our bounce rate will be lower, and the readers will become subscribers and – we hope – customers.

A recent post by Jeanette Paladino on how to define great content got me thinking more about what great content is and how we define it. Jeanette cites the oft-said phrase: “Content is king,” but then says we should ask: “Why am I creating content?”

This speaks to knowing what your goal and purpose is as a blog writer. Is it to educate people? Is it to show your knowledge so you can get readers to buy a product from you? Or is it some other reason?

I don’t think the reason matters, as much as you knowing it matters.

Jeanette cites Jon Morrow’s post on the same subject. Jon questions what great content is and admits that even he doesn’t know the answer. He says you have to continually redefine greatness to stay ahead of other bloggers and stand out. Content that’s getting great response in 2014 has four components: drama, data, depth and design.

Most importantly, he says you have to work hard to build great content. I think this is true.

I’m not sure I have a definition of what great content is, either, but I have some thoughts about where it starts.

Great content starts with good writing and editing.

Great-content

Great content doesn’t have so many errors in it that it distracts your reader. Great content is not only well written, but also well edited.

Great content doesn’t have run-on sentences, misplaced or dangling modifiers, it’s/its errors, misspellings or apostrophes in plural words. Great content doesn’t distract me with too many errors for me to keep reading. Take these examples:

1. “If you don’t know anything about it, don’t worry that’s not Eishten stuff.” This is straight from a blog of someone who wants to give you advice on how to become financially independent. This isn’t great content because it needs a semicolon after worry, and I’ve never heard of Eishten. Have you? I have, however, heard of Einstein, and he is the genius usually cited when we want to imply something is easy. This author needs to check his spelling and punctuation to make his content great.

2. “Having been a search marketer in Denver for over 15 years, it is great that we have a digital marketing conference here today in Denver.” This is from a blog of a search marketing veteran and experienced blogger. The dangling modifier in this sentence tells us that the “it” was a search marketer in Denver for over 15 years. Search marketer is a job for a person. This content isn’t great because the person is missing from the sentence. The author needs to rewrite this sentence to make his content great.

I see many bloggers who are writing great content, and their posts aren’t full of errors that make me want to cringe or recommend that they brush up on their grammar skills. Here are a couple of good examples:

1. “The 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants citizens the write to keep and bare arms. No, wait, that’s the rite to keep and bear arms. Crumbs—I meant right!” This is a hilarious introduction to a blog post on homophones. This author does a rare thing – she uses purposeful errors to make her point. And, you notice, she corrects herself by the end of her introduction, which makes it clear she really does know the correct use of the words right and bear.

2. “Roosevelt lived a life worth admiring, it’s true – he read thousands of books, wrote a bunch of books himself, served in various levels of government (including, of course, the role of President of the United States), fought in wars, and nurtured a lifelong love of nature.” This is from a post about six lessons on success and happiness from Theodore Roosevelt. This is a good explanatory sentence of some of the things Roosevelt did in his life, but it’s also an example of correct punctuation use. The commas, apostrophes, parentheses – and even a dash – are all used correctly.

Great content is compelling and interesting. It lets the writer’s voice shine through and engage the audience. Great content also has that other component: technical perfection. You can have content that is technically perfect – no grammar, punctuation, spelling or style errors – but isn’t very interesting to read. And you can have content that’s interesting to read, or should be, if only it weren’t so full of technical errors.

This brings to my definition of great content: It’s interesting, engaging and technically perfect.

As Jeanette and Jon alluded to, we can debate on what exactly makes content interesting and engaging. Maybe that’s in the eye of the reader. What I find interesting, you may not, and vice versa.

But the technically perfect part? That’s prescriptive. It’s in the rules of English grammar and usage. And too many bloggers aren’t getting that part right, which makes their content less than great. If you’re going to put your content out there for the public to see, you need to get the technical part right, as well as getting the interesting and engaging part right.

Jeanette’s and Jon’s questions about what makes great content are worthy of consideration. After all, they inspired this post. Now, I’d like to pose a new question: What is your writing and editing process to make sure your content is great?

Readers, what do you consider great content? Do errors take away from your enjoyment of what would otherwise be great content? Let us know in the comments!

A lesson in apostrophe use to help you look more professional

Today marks the debut of a new type of blog post. I’ll take an error, or maybe a few related errors, that I see in a blog post or article and examine it here.

I won’t post the URL of where the error came from. However, I will describe the topic of the blog and whether it is monetized, or whether the author offers professional services. My goal isn’t to call specific people out and point to them as if they’re idiots. You’re not an idiot, but you may need to pay more attention to your errors so you don’t look like an idiot.

I’m not going to stop at just noting the error. I’m going to explain why it’s an error, which means we’ll get into some nitty-gritty spelling, grammar or punctuation rules. And I’m going to give corrections and suggestions on how to make it better.

Why Am I Doing This?

If you’re new to blogging, haven’t done much writing for a broad audience, or haven’t done any writing in a long time, you may be committing errors that make you look less than professional without even realizing it.

If you’re sitting there smugly thinking, “I don’t have any errors in my writing!” or “People must not notice my errors because they don’t say anything,” I’m afraid I have to correct you.

I notice. If the errors are bad enough, I get distracted by your errors so much that they interfere with your message. I back away from your post without commenting.

Enough bloggers are committing writing errors that I feel confident I can make a regular feature out of these posts.

If I notice your errors, other people do, too. And we wonder: If you’re careless enough to leave errors in your blog posts, which I can read for free, why should I pay money to buy a product from you? If I pay money, the ebook or video you’re selling had better be near-perfect, or I might not be a repeat customer.

My goal is to educate you on the most common errors and how you can correct them. My goal is also to help you pay more attention to your own posts and wonder what errors you’re making. And more importantly, what can you do to edit your posts better, fix your errors, and present your blog more professionally?

My goal is to leave you with a take-away lesson that you can apply to your own writing. If you elevate your blog to a more professional level, with flawless content, you’ll be seen as more credible. People are more likely to buy from someone who is credible.

Today’s Error: Look At Your Apostrophe Use

Apostrophe-use

The rules for using apostrophes are simple. Yet so many writers misuse them. Following this simple rule will make your writing more professional.

Let’s study a simple error for this first analysis post.

This one came from the monetized blog of a marketing communications website. Since the author is trying to make money, I assume he also wants to project a professional image.

The sentence: At Christmas, we bought one of our daughter’s boots from Amazon.

The error: This is a confusing sentence because of the apostrophe in daughter’s, making the word possessive. As written, it says we bought our daughter one boot, of which she is now the proud owner. I wonder if her other foot was left bare, or if the other boot was bought elsewhere. Did the author really buy his daughter only one boot, as the sentence implies? Or does he have more than one daughter, one of whom he bought boots for?

The fix: Because boots are typically sold in pairs, at Amazon or at your local shoe store, I’m going to assume that this author made an apostrophe mistake. It’s way too common for writers to put apostrophes where they don’t belong in plural words. In this case, the apostrophe means ownership. But the second question I asked above is probably the correct one: The author has more than one daughter, and he bought a pair of boots for one of them as a Christmas gift. In that case, the word should be plural with no apostrophe.

The correct sentence: At Christmas, we bought one of our daughters boots from Amazon.

The lesson: Apostrophes are used to show possession or a contraction. They are not used to make words plural.

You see, one little apostrophe can make all the difference in making this author look a little more professional in his writing.

Readers, what do you think of this new feature? Do you find yourself misusing apostrophes? Or do you notice when other writers do? Let us know in the comments!

Tips to make sure your blog graphics look professional

Have you wondered how people create those beautiful graphics you see on the Internet? What makes a graphic professional-looking, and how can you do them yourself?

Graphics and visuals are everywhere on the Internet these days. Instagram and Pinterest are on the rise. Tweets with images get more retweets on Twitter, according to several articles I’ve read.

With the rise of Pinterest and all of the information about the Internet becoming increasingly visual, graphics on your blog are important. If your blog topic is visually heavy, at some point you’ll find you need to create a chart or a graph. A few visual topics that come to mind are fashion, hair and make-up, and cooking. Graphics or step-by-step charts would really enhance those types of blog posts.

Even if your topic isn’t naturally visually heavy, research shows that visuals are still important. I read an article recently about the brain that says vision is your strongest sense. Adding a visual helps people remember 65 percent of your message.

My topic of blog writing and editing advice isn’t naturally as visually heavy as, say, a cooking blog. But I realize the importance of visuals, so I’ve created a branded graphic to go with each of my blog posts. I’ve written a previous post on this topic.

Good-graphics

A good graphic is more than just a simple pie chart or line graph. A good graphic contains enough information to help your reader understand and remember your blog post.

Connecting visually with your readers starts with a good graphic. But what makes a graphic good? A good graphic should have:

  1. Accuracy: The data should be accurate, complete and up to date. And it should be easy to interpret.
  2. Clarity: Make sure the reader can understand it and discern what you’re trying to say.
  3. Simplicity: It should have an uncluttered appearance. Only include the minimum items necessary for understanding the information.
  4. Attribution: Tell where the data comes from. Put the source at the bottom, along one side, or in the corner.

A good graphic is more than just a simple pie chart or line graph. It needs a few more elements to make it complete. A complete graphic contains seven elements:

  1. Headline or title: This identifies what information the chart is presenting to your readers.
  2. Chart: This is the central feature of the graphic. The type of chart should be appropriate for data.
  3. Labels: Make sure you label the elements of the graphic to make them understandable.
  4. Explainer box: This is a short paragraph that explains and helps the reader interpret the chart.
  5. Legend: If you use symbols or colors in the chart, this identifies what each one means. This element may or may not be necessary.
  6.  Source: This tells where the information for the chart comes from.
  7. Credit: Tell who built the chart. If it’s you, great! If it’s someone else, then you definitely want to give them credit.

Graphics can be used for several purposes. They’re a great way to share numbers, especially complex numbers that need to be simplified for your readers. If you have a lot of numbers in a blog post, break those out into a graphic that shows them visually. Pie charts, bar charts and line graphs can be part of a larger graphic to show the relationships between numbers. Graphics are also a great way to give step-by-step instructions with pictures. Graphics are also great for showing locations or maps, which would help a travel blogger show readers a place.

Graphics aren’t just good for helping your readers remember and interpret your blog message. Graphics also help drive engagement and sharing of your posts. A helpful resource is this article on Social Media Examiner about why you should use images and how they can drive traffic to your website.

What if you’re not a professional graphic designer, and don’t have the money to hire one? You can still create quick, easy, and good graphics. I use Photoshop for mine, but I have an old version of the program that I’ve hung onto for several years. I also learned to use Photoshop in my time as a newspaper designer.

Photoshop is a big, sophisticated and expensive program. But it’s not the only graphics program, so don’t let not having it or not knowing it be a barrier to creating good graphics. Social media expert Kim Garst recently wrote a post about six free tools to create nice graphics.

Some of my favorite infographics are visually appealing, informative and organized. I bookmark them so I can refer back to them later. Here are a couple:

Social Marketing Writing has a nice “Cheat Sheet to Pinterest Limits.”

Sarkemedia.com has one on the “Blogconomy.” My criticism is that it takes three steps to get this one to magnify where you can see it, but once you do, it’s quite informative.

The best graphics are complete with all of the elements and professional-looking, and best of all, they enhance your reader’s understanding of your blog post.

Readers, do you create your own graphics? What do you think makes a good graphic? Let us know in the comments!

How to conduct a smoother interview with these tips

So now you have an interview scheduled with a source you’ve been waiting to talk to. Excited? Nervous? How can you focus and get the most out of your source?

We talked in the last post about how to prepare and ask for an interview. We also described the three major types of interviews: email, telephone or video, and in-person. No matter what type of interview you’re conducting, you want to conduct it professionally and make your source, and your readers, glad you did it.

At this point, you should go over your research one more time to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Remember, you should know basic information about your topic and your source before you start the interview.

You should also make sure your questions are organized. Make sure you have a mixture of closed-ended (yes or no) questions to get specific answers, and open-ended questions to get your source’s thoughts and opinions.

If you’re conducting an in-person or video interview, rehearsing can help you be more comfortable, especially if you’re new at it. Get a friend to role-play the source so you get comfortable asking questions.

Conducting the interview

Interview-conducting

Conducting a smooth and productive interview with your source is important to presenting yourself as a professional, and getting good information for your readers.

If you’re conducting an interview in person, dress business-like to show your seriousness and credibility. Your appearance can help the interviewee gain or lose confidence in you. Make sure you arrive on time, and stick to the time limits you gave the interviewee. If you told them the interview was going to take 30 minutes, make sure it only takes 30 minutes. If they want to talk longer, that’s up to them.

If you’re doing an email interview, and you told the source you were going to ask them six or seven questions, don’t send them twelve questions. Send them what they agreed to answer.

Building rapport is most important for in-person, phone or video interviews. This sets your source at ease and makes them less nervous. You can ask about something on their desk or shelf, or you can tell a story about something that happened to you that day. You can also simply ask how they’re doing.

As you begin asking your questions, take charge of the interview. An interview is basically a controlled conversation, but you’re performing a service to your readers. You need to get certain information.

You may have to assert yourself and be persistent in keeping the interviewee on topic to give you good answers. If the person refuses to answer a question or tries to evade it, ask again. No matter which type of interview you’re doing, you can try rewording the question.

In any type of interview, keep your questions focused and precise, such as: How did it feel? What do you think about…? What went through your mind when…?

Ask follow-up questions, such as: Can you give me an example? Can you elaborate? That’s interesting; tell me more about that. You can do this in-person easily, or you can do it via email once you receive the person’s original answers to your questions.

Be flexible and willing to go off-script. If the interview takes an unexpected turn, go with it. You may get unexpected material. However, if it’s just straying off into an unproductive tangent, redirect the person back to the topic.

If you’re talking to the person, don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down or repeat themselves so you can take notes. People talk faster than most of us can write or type. They will know you’re trying to be accurate, and usually won’t mind.

If the person can see you, use reassuring body language to keep them talking. Maintain eye contact and an open expression. Lean toward them. If you’re doing a phone interview, your reassurance will have to be verbal, such as: Mmmm-hmmm. Huh. Really? Wow.

If you’re talking to the person, one powerful technique to getting better answers to your questions is silence. If they give you a short or lame answer, or try to dodge the question, resist the urge to jump in. Remain quiet, pen poised to write, expression open, and wait. Chances are they’ll start talking again to fill in the silence. This technique may feel uncomfortable the first time you try it, which is where some rehearsal with a friend can help.

At the end of the interview, use one last question: Is there anything else I should ask you about? It gives the subject a chance to open up new topics.

After the interview

After the interview is over, there are a few more things you need to do. One is to make sure you say thank you. After all, they’ve given you their time and information. They didn’t have to do so.

Review your notes. Go through parts that are confusing or need clarification to make sure you have everything right. If you’ve conducted an in-person, phone or video interview, look back at your notes as soon as possible to make sure you have all the information you need.

If you need other sources, ask your interviewee who else you should talk to. They know people and can refer you to other sources.

Ask permission to call them back or email them. You may have more questions, or when you sit down to write, you may need to clarify the notes you’ve already taken. You can also ask them to call or email you if they think of anything else that might help your story.

Once you’re done writing your story and it’s posted on your blog, or the podcast is uploaded, send your source the link. Get their feedback. This keeps a friendly rapport and lets them know what you’ve done with their information. It may also pave the way to use them as a source in the future.

Now that we’ve talked about how to prepare and conduct an interview over the last two posts, I hope you have a better idea of some of the tips and tricks you can use to improve your interviewing technique. The only way to get better at conducting interviews is to do it. The more you do it, the more professional and less nervous you’ll be.

Interviews can add a lot to your blog or podcast, so don’t shy away from doing them. Embrace the chance to talk to expert sources. You and your readers or listeners will be better off for it.

Readers, what techniques have you used when you conduct interviews? Let us know in the comments!

Improve your interviewing skills with these tips and tricks

Are you new to doing interviews, or do you want to do more for your blog or podcast? What are some different ways to interview people, and how can you prepare for an interview?

Interviewing people is a great way to add perspective and expertise to your blog or podcast. We’ve talked about sources in the past two posts, but in addition to print or text sources, another source for bloggers and podcasters is interviews.

When I was in journalism, I interviewed a lot of people. I always enjoyed the interview process because I found it fun to meet people and pull out their stories. If you’re experienced at interviewing, perhaps you enjoy the process already. If you’re new to interviewing and nervous about it, there are some techniques you can use to get better at it.

The only way to get better at interviewing people is to do it. I hope these tips and tricks will help you relax and enjoy the process.

Preparing for the interview

You have a blog post topic in mind, and you think you’ll need to do an interview. To prepare for the interview, figure out what information you need and who the best source is. Then prepare questions to ask.

Interview preparation

A good interview with your source starts with good preparation. Decide the purpose of your interview, get familiar with your source, and prepare questions to ask.

Gather background information about your topic and source so you can plan specific questions. If you’re not familiar with the topic of the story, research other news stories and websites.

Before you do the interview, get familiar with your source’s website and what they offer. Google them, and look for newspaper or magazine articles about them or by them. Find them on social media outlets and check out their profiles. Your first question should not be, “So, what’s your blog about?”

Now you’re ready to write some fresh and intelligent questions. It’s a good idea to start with a list of questions, but you also want to leave room for spontaneous questions. Sometimes, the interview will go in a direction you hadn’t anticipated.

Organize your questions about the same topic together. Jumping back and forth between topics will be jarring for both you and the interviewee. If you have questions that may be difficult or confrontational, save those until the end. Start with the easier questions so you can establish rapport.

Now you’re ready to set up the interview. Decide the best way to interview the source. Is email sufficient, or should you set up a phone call or video interview, or can you get together with them in person?

As a blogger, you’ll probably conduct a lot of interviews via email. This allows you to write out your introduction to a source and contact them no matter where they live. The interviewee can take time to write out thoughtful answers. However, although email interviews are convenient for bloggers, they’re not as spontaneous as an in-person interview. It’s also harder to establish rapport on a screen than it is in person.

Telephone or video interviews let you establish rapport better than email. If you’re on the phone, you have to do it verbally because the interviewee can’t see you. If you’re using Skype or another video interface, then they can see you, so it’s almost like an in-person interview. The disadvantage to a telephone or video interview is that it can be difficult to arrange yours and your subject’s schedule.

In-person interviews are useful when you’re able to get together with the interviewee. Interviewing in person can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but it gives you a real sense of your interviewee. Like the telephone or video interview, you have to be able to arrange a time to meet that fits both your and the interviewee’s schedule.

Asking for the interview

To get an interview with a source you’d really like to talk to, you have to ask. Whether you’re asking via email or phone, establish who you are and your credentials, then explain what you’re doing. You can say something like: “Hi, I’m Jennifer Thornberry, and I’m the author of the Contemporary Communicator blog. I’m writing a post about the harm that writing errors does to a blogger’s image. I’d really like your expertise and perspective. Would you be willing to answer a few questions via email?”

Or, if you’re asking for a phone, video or in-person interview, explain that and ask to schedule a time when you can both get together. No matter what type of interview you’re asking for, use common courtesy and respect the interviewee’s schedule. Even answering email questions thoroughly takes time.

You should always identify yourself and what you’re doing to a source. An interviewee whose words may show up in text on the Internet or in voice on a podcast needs to know how their words will be used. You should always give them the opportunity to decline talking to you.

If your source is hesitant or shy, do your best to reassure them. Tell them you really want their perspective because it will really enhance your story.

For in-person, phone or video interviews, schedule a specific time to meet or conduct the call so you can both be ready and have plenty of time. You want to be able to have an uninterrupted, private discussion. Allow more time in your own schedule than what you tell the interviewee. Be prepared for the interview to run longer if it’s going well.

If you’re recording the conversation, ask if they’re okay with you doing so. Some people don’t mind, and some people do.

Next: Conducting the interview

Interviewing sources can add an exciting dimension to your blogging or podcasting. Now that you have your research and questions prepared, and you’ve gotten your source to agree to the interview, it’s time to actually conduct the interview.

In my next post, I’ll give some tips and techniques to help you conduct a smooth interview that helps you and your source.

Readers, have you conducted many interviews? How do you prepare? What other tips besides the ones I’ve given do you find helpful? Let us know in the comments!

How to judge an online source for credibility and accuracy

How do you evaluate sources, especially online sources, for credibility, lack of bias and good information?

In my last post, I talked about the importance of finding good online sources if you need them to support your blog topic, and I gave some tips on how to find good sources.

But how do you know if a source is “good” or not? How can you judge an online source – or any source, for that matter – for its credibility and accuracy?

Judging-online-sources

There’s nothing wrong with searching for sources in your favorite search engine. But keep in mind that the Internet has two sides. Look at sources with a skeptical eye.

The most popular search engine is so widely used that it has become a verb. We say, “I’ll google that and find the answer.” There’s nothing wrong with googling a search term, and I do it all the time. But you need to keep in mind that the Internet has two sides. The positive side is that it’s fast, easily accessible and has an abundance of data. The negative side is that it’s fast, easily accessible and has an abundance of data.

If you’re wondering how the same thing can be both positive and negative, let me explain. The Internet has a low barrier to entry. That is, you can set up a blog for free, and with $10, you can buy your own domain name. With any medium that has a low barrier to entry, you’ll get a wide range of information. Along with the many credible websites and databases, there are just as many opinionated ranters and fake sites out there.

That’s why it pays off to evaluate online sources critically. Google and other search engines put a lot at your fingertips, but you shouldn’t blindly trust what comes up. Use a skeptical eye. When doing research, it’s important to exercise good judgment and double-check what you find. Check your sources for accuracy – don’t just believe they’re correct.

Not all information is good information, especially when you find it on the Internet. It can be inaccurate or incomplete, outdated, biased, or lacking in context.

When you find a website that looks like it might be a good source, how can you assess its credibility? Here are six criteria you can use:

  1. Is the site accountable to its visitors? Look at the author, whether it’s a person or group. Does the site say who is responsible for the content?
  2. How accurate are facts on the site? Does the information come from this source, or does the author cite their sources? Can you verify it with another source?
  3. Is the information presented objectively? What is the sponsor’s agenda? Is it full of opinions? Do they accept feedback and correct mistakes?
  4. How current is the information? Is it up to date, or full of old information and broken links?
  5. How usable and user-friendly is the site?
  6. Is the presentation of information diversity-sensitive, or is it biased?

If any of these criteria make you uncomfortable about using a website as a source, move on. If you have the least question about a source’s bias or accuracy, don’t use it. Keep looking for a more balanced view. The Google will find many other sites that pass muster on these criteria.

The Internet has made searching for information easier than ever, but it has also made plagiarism easier than ever. As a journalist and former teacher, I have zero tolerance for plagiarism. Do your own work, or cite others’ work if you use it. Stay vigilant about not plagiarizing online content so you can stay credible. You have to attribute information to its source. Tell where it came from, and use quotation marks around information you quote directly. If you’re going to use any audio or video from the source on your website, always ask permission.

Here are some ways you can guard against plagiarism:

  1. Directly quote and cite the source, giving a link when possible.
  2. Credit the source in a paraphrase when it uses most of their words.
  3. Reword the phrase so it’s yours.
  4. When in doubt, cite the source. Better to cite too much than not enough and get in trouble.

Finding good sources is important because they need to deliver on the promise you make in your headline and in the opening paragraphs of your post. The sources need to be relevant to your topic. Remember, you and your reputation are only as good as the sources you use, so you want to make sure you’re evaluating them as best you can.

Readers, how do you judge online sources? What types of sources do you find to be the most credible? Least credible? Let us know in the comments!